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Recognizing the faces of homelessness

When you hear the word homeless, whom do you think of? For many, the image of a man, pushing a shopping cart is what comes to mind first. Perhaps he is panhandling for money on the street.

When you hear the word homeless, who do you think of? For many, the image of a man pushing a shopping cart is what comes to mind first. Perhaps he is panhandling for money on the street. Perhaps he is sitting on a corner, holding a sign, asking for food. This stereotypical image, however, is part of the problem. What communities need to recognize is the covert homelessness that is often standing right in front of them.

There are many faces of homelessness that people sometimes don’t recognize. It could be a neighbour. A co-worker. A family friend. It could also be your child’s desk mate at school, or a fellow schoolmate who swings beside them on the playground. According to Raising the Roof’s comprehensive analysis, “family homelessness makes up a significant percentage of the overall homeless population in Canada.” For families who are experiencing homelessness, especially when children are involved, the situation becomes much more complex and challenging.

Imagine being a child and waking up in a different bed every other morning. Imagine your life being entrenched in constant uncertainty: wondering where your next meal will come from, or where you might rest your head at night. These are the unfortunate realities that homeless children face, through no fault of their own.

YMCA Canada’s “Where There’s No Place Like Home” reports that single mothers largely lead families experiencing homelessness. Some of these families choose not to seek refuge in shelters due to safety concerns. Many would prefer to stay with friends or family, who are close by, in hopes of maintaining a sense of normality for their children. However, where do they go when there is nowhere to turn? And if they are fleeing from domestic violence, staying in the community may not be a viable option. Then these families are faced with the challenges of starting up again in a new community, where resources are unknown and family support is not available.

Just as homeless single mothers face significant challenges, single fathers are faced with a plethora of unique obstacles. They may be afraid to take their children into inner city shelters. And they can’t seek refuge in a women’s shelter. So where do fathers take their kids? Hopefully they have access to a friend or family member who will offer a couch or bed for the short term.

Studies done by “Raising the Roof” highlight “childhood stressors and trauma such as family breakdown, poverty, conflict and abuse are contributing factors to child and youth homelessness but childhood homelessness itself has been linked as a pathway to adult homelessness.”

What can help? An increased inventory of appropriate (affordable, barrier-free and safe) housing, affordable child-care, timely access to addictions and mental health professionals and having a comprehensive social safety net of agencies who do not solely focus on homelessness who can offer additional wrap-around services that can assist families with housing stability and retention through family supports, education/career counselling and employment services.

Suzan Krecsy is the director of the St. Albert Food Bank.

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